The face of penal institutions is changing. The era of moderate sentences and post-incarceration supervision has been replaced by long sentences with little or no parole. The goal of rehabilitation has been replaced by human warehousing.
Moreover, the demographics of prisons have shifted over the past few decades. Many facilities now resemble juvenile detention centers, but with all the cruel realities of the traditional penal system. In most state prisons, it’s reported that the under-18 population segment has experienced the greatest growth rate “with the likelihood of incarceration relative to arrest increasing in almost every category[i].” The rate of juveniles admitted into prisons has risen 104% from 1995 to 1997; sixteen year-old offenders have increased 16.66%, while fifteen year-olds in prison have jumped 50%[ii].
Today, an individual is more likely to be incarcerated for an offense, spend a longer time in prison, and be released without adequate preparation or post-incarceration supervision. One report states, “truth-in-sentencing and mandatory minimum sentencing laws have contributed to reducing post-release supervision and the incentives for inmates to participate in rehabilitation activities while in prison[iii].”
As younger inmates constitute a larger percentage of the penal population, rehabilitative programs to combat recidivism are required. It is reported that 50-75% of prisoners are functionally illiterate.[iv] Only about 33% of state inmates have a high-school diploma[v], and of the 10% of inmates reported to have a learning disability, 11.1% are 24 or younger[vi].
Educational programs that focus on literacy[vii] and public communications[viii] have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. Similarly, prisoners who receive their high-school equivalency are less likely to commit additional offenses, while maintaining a 33% higher rate of employment upon release, than those without the degree.[ix]
Dr. James Gilligan, the former director of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, has stated that nothing reduces crime, violence, and the rate of prison recidivism more effectively than education[x]. Specifically, Dr. Gilligan claims that prison college programs most drastically reduce prisoner re-offence[xi]. A 1997 study in North Carolina conducted over a three-year span concluded that inmates who earned a B.A. degree while incarcerated have maintained a 0% rate of recidivism[xii]. The national rate of recidivism is 63%[xiii].
Some groups, such as Mass Inc., have advocated the position that prison rehabilitation is worth the time, energy, and money it will take, because it will improve public safety[xiv]. This message has merit, and is particularly relevant now, given the changing demographics of the penal system. Unfortunately, many state systems are reducing, rather than expanding, prison programs. With two million people incarcerated in America[xv], state governments must rethink their public safety policies, especially in light of the changing face of today’s prisons.
Douglas P. Wilson is currently an inmate at Bay State Correctional Center, P.O.Box 73, Norfolk, MA 02056.
[i]Austin, J., Johnson, D., and Gregoriou, M. Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails: A National Assessment. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Assistance. National Council on Crime and Delinquency. US Department of Justice. 2000.
[ii]Austin, J., Johnson, D., and Gregoriou, M. Ibid.
[iii]Piehl, M.A. From Cell to Street: A Plan to Supervise Inmates After Release. The Massachusetts Initiative for a New Commonwealth: 1/02.
[iv]Tewksbury, R. Literary Program for Jail Inmates: Reflection and Recommendation for One Program. The Prison Journal: 12/94.
[v]Survey of State Prison Inmates, 1991. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.
[vi]Bureau of Justice Statistics (1997). Characteristics of Federal Prisons: United States, 1992-97. Washington DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
[vii]Piehl, M.A. Ibid.
[viii]Downing, R. Letter from a Louisiana Judge. CA: The Toastmaster. 1999.
[ix]Piehl, M.A. Prison Education Program. Cambridge, MA: Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University: Fall 1994.
[x]Gilligan, J. Violence: Reflection on a National Epidemic. 1997.
[xi]Gilligan, J. Spare Change. Spare Change (Boston, MA): 12/1/1996.
[xii]Steven, D.J. and Ward, C. College Education and Recidivism: Educating Criminals Is Meritorious. Journal of Correctional Education: 1997.
[xiii]Piehl, M.A. (2002) Ibid.
[xiv]Piehl, M.A. (2002) Ibid.
[xv]Richardson, F. Mass Bucks Trend with Decrease in Inmate Population. Boston Herald: 3/26/01.